Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out of Shanghai

I've written three posts recently relating to Shanghai, and I’ll conclude by describing my final departure in 1990 from that fabled city. (I doubt if I'll go there again, as I can't bare to think what's become of the place.)

The overnight boat to the Buddhist island of Putuoshan left its downtown dock on the Huangpu River at the Bund promptly at 8pm. It probably still does so today, since the Chinese concept of a vacation has been since time immemorial to go off for a visit to a Buddhist temple, and Putuoshan is famous as one of the “four sacred mountains” in Chinese Buddhism.

Western visitors and Lonely Planet hadn’t yet caught on to this, so I was the only waiguo-ren on board. I booked passage in the cheapest possible cabin, being afraid that by traveling in steearage I might wake up in the morning to find my gear gone, hard for any backpacker to replace while en route in any developing country.

The boat turned out to be not a modern ferry, but rather a pre-WWII south seas freighter converted into a sort-of passenger ship. My cabin on this floating turd-bucket was a small space whose every surface was composed of rusting white-washed cast iron, except for the small cot with a single worn wool blanket. The interior stank of urine, and the latch and hinges of the single, oval-shaped port-hole had rusted shut years before. The smell of urine and the incessant growling of the ship’s engines that vibrated through the walls made any hope of sleep impossible.

But I was transported mentally. Here I was, reenacting the same scene found in numberless Hollywood movies, travelling in a south seas tramp-steamer along the coast of China. I pressed my head against the dirty port-window and could make out the moon flittering across the waves of the East China Sea. I felt very happy.

The vessel released its human cargo onto the dock at Putuoshan around 5am, sufficient time to race to the Puji Temple for morning service. I put on my Soto zen rakasu and joined in with the monks.

Chinese ceremonies are huge fun, since if it’s a large temple, the monks march around the Buddha Hall in concentric circles, sort of like a Buddhist conga line, and there are wonderful Chinese percussion instruments that punctuate the chanting, sounding occasionally like Beijing Opera. (So much more congenial than the formality of morning services I attended at Ehei-ji in Japan, where kneeling motionless in seiza for 45 minutes or more left you worrying if the circulation to your legs had been cut off permanently.)

I poked around the sacred island, dedicated to Guan-Yin (aka: Avalokiteshvara), for a few hours, but found it the least interesting of the four holy mountains in China, due in part no doubt to my profound lack of sleep. Consequently I took the afternoon ferry to Ningbo, before moving on to Dogen’s temple at Tiantong.

[Picture of Puji Temple by James Johnson. More pictures of Putuoshan by James Johnson are posted here.]

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